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110 min. Japanese.

Koki Tanaka questions the coordinates and the mechanisms that contribute to the formation of a family through his video work Abstracted / Family, where the notion of “family” is not one based on blood relation, but refers to a “quasi-family,” wherein a group of people who happen to share the same time and space are united. Tanaka brings together four protagonists whose families descend from Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, and the Korean peninsula, but are themselves native Japanese speakers and have been brought up in a Japanese cultural environment. Their co-existence in a typical Japanese suburban house requires them to be involved in diverse everyday life actions or work together as a group in creating a series of abstract paintings. On another side, the artist questions the stereotype that the Japanese as a whole are a homogenous entity, a racist idea shared both by the local population, as well as in the international public view of the country and its people.

Koki Tanaka, born in 1975 in Tochigi, Japan, is a Kyoto-based artist. In his diverse art practice spanning video, photography, site-specific installations, and interventional projects, he visualized and reveals the multiple contexts latent in the simplest of everyday acts. In his early object-oriented works, Tanaka experiments with ordinary objects to explore ways to offer a possible escape from our everyday routine. Later in his works, Tanaka asked the participants to collectively navigate tasks that in and of themselves are out of the ordinary, he then documented behaviors that were unconsciously exhibited by people confronting unusual situations, such as one piece of pottery made by five potters and a piano played by five pianists simultaneously, seeking to reveal group dynamics in a micro-society and temporal community. Following the tsunami disaster on 1 March 2011 in Japan, Tanaka has employed a variety of methods to produce works on the relationality that arises between human beings, what he calls “collective acts”: experiments of various sorts that still lack a fixed destination. Tanaka’s work has been shown widely in major museums and biennials. Abstracted / Family is his second feature.

Artist Notes

On those long, dark nights when you can’t get to sleep, who do you think of first? A former lover? Your current partner? A friend who hurt you? Or maybe a family member?

Family 1
Your being here results from a chain of accidental encounters in your family history, and in a sense it is also one end in the history of humanity to which your family history belongs.

The word “family” has multiple associations. It can be linked from traditional or patriarchal models of family to nationalist ideologies, but on the other hand we also describe relationships formed through temporary connections as being “like family,” as in the case of a film crew, for example.

In “Genron 0: Philosophy of the Tourist” (Tokyo: Genron, 2017), the contemporary thinker Hiroki Azuma identifies three main characteristics of the family. They are:

(1) Compulsoriness (a family cannot be easily entered into or left)
(2) Contingency (a family is an assemblage of coincidences: children cannot choose their parents, while parents cannot choose their children)
(3) Expandability (a family can be expanded to include anyone who shares the same food and roof, and is not restricted to blood relations)

In other words, a family can be defined as a group that has strong bonds but is constructed by accident while also being expandable.

“Since it is possible for family membership to be based solely on personal affection, it can at times even extend across boundaries between species. This is misdelivery caused by empathy.” (“Family,” in Genron 0, 222)

For instance, we often say our pets are our family members. In this sense the expandability of the family concept allows an empathy that even crosses interspecies boundaries. In which case, simply spending time with other people in a temporary communal situation might be enough for one to form a bond with them. This could be an alternate possibility for producing solidarity.

In Japan, people with one parent who comes from another country are commonly referred to as “hāfu” (from the English “half,” used in place of saying “half-Japanese, half-Brazilian,” etc.) and viewed as “foreigners.” Even those who are Japanese nationals or were raised in Japan can be labeled “foreigners” based on the slightest distinctions in their features. In other words, they can become objects of discrimination. This sensibility probably feels weird to anyone who has ever lived in a city like Paris, London, or Los Angeles. Binaries like the above between “Japanese” and “foreigner” don’t really make sense in places where many people from all kinds of backgrounds live together.

The protagonists of this project have roots in the Korean Peninsula, Bolivia, Bangladesh, and Brazil, respectively. Since they were either born in Japan or came here at an early age, they are all native Japanese speakers and were all raised in a Japanese cultural environment.

There is a fantasy in Japan that the Japanese are a homogeneous race. But even in this small island nation there are differences in culture and cuisine between regions. Of course when we think of the people in Okinawa or the Ainu in Hokkaido then it puts the lie to the notion of a “homogeneous race.” What is made clear by the research of one of the advisors to this project, Lawrence Yoshitaka Shimoji, is that even though Japanese who had foreign roots already existed in Japanese society and held Japanese nationality after World War II, they were made into “foreigners” based on their features and rendered invisible. Although immigrant-related issues are receiving more attention in Japan in recent years, we really need to question why we still do not have a more diverse image of the Japanese people.

Socially Engaged Abstract Painting
Abstract painting envisions its ideal viewer to be a universal human subject equipped with the visual faculty for perceiving color and form. One who transcends time, locality, race. In this sense abstract painting is predicated on the idea of equality. Of course I can’t say whether this is the actual reason for it, but previously when I did research at anarchist cafés, independent bookshops, and refugee aid centers in Greece, I noticed that they always seemed to have abstract paintings hanging on their walls.

Since I’ll be having the protagonists make abstract paintings this time, I asked the curator Mika Kuraya to think about how painters and painting practice can be related to sociopolitical history. She had organized an exhibition on painting and the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011. I also asked the painter Ken Sasaki, who is a friend of mine, to help out with the painting workshop. In fact, the three of us traveled to the disaster area together in 2012, the year after the earthquake.

There’s a tendency to think of painting practice as an act that is cut off from society, carried out by solitary painters secluded in their studios. But recall for example the painters who were designated “degenerate artists” by the Nazis beginning in the 1930s and became refugees. Many of them fled Germany for the United States, where they created new art scenes. Or take someone like Laura Owens, who opened a space to show her works as a place for her local community in Los Angeles, and sees her art practice as a comprehensive activity. (It was a shame that her space, 356 Mission, was denounced by antigentrification protestors and eventually closed down.) So artists also get involved in social events.

Family 2
This time I am exploring the protagonists’ personal histories through the unit of the “family”. The protagonists are four complete strangers who would never have met if not for the project. They each have complex cultural roots (influenced by the immigration policy of the former Japanese “empire” or the events of World War II, or resulting from global flows of population) and come from diverse backgrounds.

Their family and personal histories echo through the black box of the theater, while the abstract paintings they made together in the white cube of the painting studio are a metaphorical mixing of their backgrounds and thoughts. Everyday scenes shot in a typical suburban house weave together acted with spontaneous utterances, virtual family relations with real family stories, and the conversations and actions of the four protagonists with paintings in which multiple forms inhabit the same space. As we watch the life of this “accidental family” unfold between fiction and reality, perhaps it will prompt us to ask ourselves a fundamental question: “Who am I?”

Koki Tanaka

Tokyo and Kyoto, June 2019

Translated by Andrew Maerkle

Production Koki Tanaka. Production company Koki Tanaka (Kyoto, Japan). Director Koki Tanaka. Cinematography Shinya Aoyama. Editing Koki Tanaka. Sound Ryota Fujiguchi. Assistant director Shun Sato. Production manager Shun Sato. With Claudia Shimoji, Ai Nakagawa, Kiyoshi Hashimoto, Naoto Yasuda, Lawrence Yoshitaka Shimoji (Interviewer).

World sales Vitamin Creative Space


2019: Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie) (103 min.). 2020: Abstracted / Family.

Photo: © Koki Tanaka / Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou / Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur